New York City’s dark past was filled with turbulent violence in the bars and back alleys of the Bowery and notorious Five Points district. Herbert Asbury’s book, ‘The Gangs of New York’ reports that police arrested 82,072 New Yorkers in 1862 – 10 percent of the city’s population. Charles Dickens visited and described the Points as “narrow ways diverging to the left and right, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth.” This was the first stop for many poor German, Irish, and Italian immigrants. Gangs were formed largely because of this immigration. The ‘natives’, as they called themselves were deeply patriotic and thought the country was full enough without newcomers.
Martin Scorsese’s loose adaptation of Asbury’s book was made into the Oscar winning feature,Gangs of New York in 2002. It was recently announced he would expand the feature into a TV mini-series which will cover the multitude of events surrounding organized gangs at the turn of the century and shortly thereafter in America, not only in New York, but in other cities such as Chicago and New Orleans and the birth of organized crime in America.
The first gang of Five Points were called the Forty Thieves, primarily Irishmen. Next came the Kerryonians, also from Ireland. Soon after came The Chichesters, Roach Guards, Plug Uglies, Shirt Tails and Dead Rabbits. Later came the Bowery Boys, the True Blue Americans, American Guards, the O’Connell Guards and the Atlantic Guards. For many years, the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys waged a bitter feud, battling weekly, sometimes each battle would last days.
The streets of the gang area were barricaded with carts and paving stones, and the gangsters blazed away at each other with musket and pistol, or engaged in close work with knives, brickbats, bludgeons, teeth, and fists. On the outskirts of the struggling mob of thugs ranged the women, their arms filled with reserve ammunition, their keen eyes watching for a break in the enemy’s defense, and always ready to lend a hand or a tooth in the fray.
Scorsese’s feature largely focuses on the Dead Rabbits and The Bowery Boys. Watch this clip where the two gangs meet to battle for Five Points.
Keep checking back to find out more about the individual gangs, the GONY TV series and how their stories will be developed. Read more GONY related content here.